The Hundred Days

I’ve been struggling to focus on my reading these days. It took me several weeks to finish Hild, even though I enjoyed it quite a bit, and I haven’t been able to muster up much interest in any of the other books I’ve picked up since then. Travel and TV and news and magazine articles have been filling my brain instead.

To get myself back in the book habit, I decided to go for something reliable, the 19th novel in Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series (and the penultimate book to be completed). I don’t know how much of it was my mood, but this didn’t turn out to be among my favorites in the series, although it has its pleasing moments.

The book covers the period of Napoleon’s escape from Elba and his defeat at Waterloo. Jack is serving a commodore over a fleet of ships that goes to north Africa to cut off any support Napoleon might receive from allies there. But before the mission begins, we readers learn of a tragic and shocking death that occurred after the events of The Yellow Admiral. It’s a significant enough moment that I was a little annoyed that the death and its immediate aftermath all happen off the page and get hardly any attention beyond that. I wouldn’t necessarily want the book to wallow in the tragedy, and certainly life and war will go on, but the lack of emotional repercussions seems wrong.

As for the story itself, it takes a while to get going, and I found the early chapters, which involve some political intrigue, a little hard to follow. I was, however, delighted to see Jack take on board a female loblolly boy named Poll. A widow who’s served on multiple ships, Poll helps Stephen and his assistant surgeon, Dr. Jacobs, and is a valuable member of the crew.

It’s only after the Surprise reaches Algiers that the book as a whole really takes off. Stephen and Jacobs head out to meet Omar Pasha and his political adviser to ensure that they make no moves to support Napoleon. As usual, Stephen takes pleasure in the animal life he encounters along the way. And the adventure builds up to a lion-hunting expedition that nearly turns fatal.

Another startling development occurs at the market in Algiers, where Stephen encounters two seven-year-old Irish children who’ve been trafficked into slavery. He immediately purchases them and takes them under his wing, with the intention to ensure that they get home to Ireland.

Other than that, not much in this book stands out. It has sea battles and storms and unexpected obstacles, a lot of the typical trappings of an O’Brian novel. Not among my favorites, but not weak enough to detract from my overall pleasure in the series.

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Lincoln in the Bardo

lincoln in the bardoBefore I read this novel, I was already a fan of George Saunders from two of his collections of outstanding short stories (Tenth of December and In Persuasion Nation.) I love the way he plays with form, and the… what can I say? The dry farce of his stories, and the way he shows human beings at their lowest, and somehow loves us anyway. I wondered what a George Saunders novel would be like, though. Sometimes weirdness is at its best in short form, you know?

I ought to have trusted him.

This novel is not like any other novel I’ve read. Generally, it is about the death of Willie Lincoln — an open-hearted, kind little boy — and his father’s rending grief, with a cloud of attending circumstances and witnesses. The chapters alternate: some are collections of quotations from dozens of sources (some primary, some secondary), describing the night Willie died, the circumstances leading up to it, the funeral, and so forth. The sources sometimes agree with each other and sometimes contradict each other absurdly.

The other chapters are narrative chapters — narrated by the voices of the dead who populate the graveyard where Willie has been laid in his “sick-box,” as they prefer to call it. (They are too delicate to name death.) These men and women like to tell the stories of their own lives when they were… not sick and confined to the cemetery, but they are also very concerned about Willie. He can’t stay; it’s bad for young ones to stay. He needs to pass on to whatever’s on the other side. But his presidential father’s deep love and grief are holding him here, to his own danger. The narrators decide to try to figure out how to help him move on, even if it means sacrificing their own understanding of their place in their universe.

Both kinds of chapters — the historical sources and the narrative voices of the dead — have the function of a sort of Greek chorus, as they speak over each other and tell their own stories. It’s a strange way of putting together a novel, and it emphasizes that history is a patchwork: it’s what we remember about ourselves, and what sources say (neither of which may be accurate.) The truth of things lies somewhere unfindable. When the surrounding dead see Abraham Lincoln come into the mausoleum and take his little son’s body out of his coffin to hold him one more time, they stand speechless and amazed. They’ve never seen that kind of love before, or such deep sorrow. They want to crowd around and tell their stories to someone capable of that kind of feeling: women and men, enslaved people and free, ministers and sinners. And it becomes clear that those distinctions are perhaps less meaningful than they seemed in life.

Why Lincoln? Is it arbitrary? I don’t think so. That patchwork of history has so much to say about him, for one thing, and yet we can’t really know his heart or his thoughts. All those voices are incomplete without the reality of emotion and love. That grief has a kind of universality about it that Saunders makes infinitely touching. (I read this book on a plane, which was a terrible mistake because I had to control my tears.) Saunders doesn’t speculate much about the system of the afterlife — he leaves it mysterious — but he implies that loving action is what matters. He leaves it to us to draw our own conclusions about Lincoln, about the narrators, and about ourselves.

This was a strange, beautiful, moving book. It’s hard for me to know who to recommend it to, because I don’t think everyone would like it in the same way they might like a more linear novel, but I thought it was wonderful. I’d love to hear your thoughts on it if you’ve read it.


Posted in Fiction, Historical Fiction, Speculative Fiction | 8 Comments

White Rage

white rageCarol Anderson’s book White Rage is surprisingly brief — only about 165 pages — but it is as powerful as a vaccine. If you read it, you won’t be able to look at American history (or your own education) in the same way again.

The premise of Anderson’s work is that, ever since slavery ended. it has been the business of white Americans to keep the black population comfortably uneducated, ill-housed, un-or underpaid, and — if that fails — incarcerated. Each time African-Americans refuse to live in these conditions and push a step forward for equality and justice, for themselves and their children, there is a rage-filled backlash as white Americans use any means possible — the courts, personal resistance, riots and violence — to roll that progress backward.

Anderson discusses the Black Codes that came into existence during Reconstruction, codes that essentially rebuilt slavery. She demonstrates the shocking ways southern employers prevented black workers from migrating to the north in search of better jobs, even when that prevention meant slowing transportation in a nation at war. She shows the massive resistance to Brown v. Topeka Board of Education, and the way that decision was carefully, deliberately gutted and made meaningless. She shows a nation that would rather destroy its pride and glory — its free education — than give it to all its citizens. And is it surprising that the states that resisted Brown the longest and the hardest are now the lowest-ranking in public education?

Anderson traces the less-discussed part of the Iran-Contra affair, the part where Reagan and Oliver North flooded inner cities (which means black communities) with cocaine so they could secretly fund anti-Sandinista terrorists: the source and beginning of the “war on drugs.” (That sounds like such a conspiracy theory as I write it out, but it actually happened.) She touches on mass incarceration and housing discrimination. And she talks about the meaning of a black president, and the way voter disenfranchisement efforts ramped up when Obama was elected.

I will tell you right now that I am an educated person who reads the news and I did not know most of the information in this book. This was nothing I was ever taught or told. In school, we were given a narrative of progress, with Jim Crow being a speed bump on the way. Anderson’s history, which dives into white motivations not just for resistance but for rape, riot, and murder, was both far darker and far truer. Perhaps the hardest part for me (as when I read Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow) was reading about Supreme Court cases that were obviously, egregiously unjust. I think I still have corners of naiveté that allow me to believe that the highest court of the land shouldn’t be made up of humans with the prejudices of their time.

Knowing this kind of history is so crucial. You hear people all the time talking about “the legacy of slavery” (or worse, “I didn’t own slaves,”) as if the last time some injustice was done was in 1864, so cheer up, guys! This is just not the case. Injustice has been happening all along and is happening right now.

It would be easy to become paralyzed or overwhelmed by this kind of a book. It took me much longer to read than a 165-page book usually would, both because it is very sad and because it is dense (Anderson is a historian at Emory and gives us another 30 pages of footnotes.) But I recommend it to every single American (and international readers too, but this is very much focused on US systemic racism.) It is an extremely powerful book, clearly written, forceful, and unblinking. I think it has huge value for every reader.

Posted in History, Nonfiction | 4 Comments


syllabusIt’s fitting that during the last week of classes, when all I want to do is finish grading final exams and papers and close the door of my office and walk out into the May weather, I should write about a book that made me want to think about teaching (and learning and writing and drawing and thinking. And.)

Syllabus, by Lynda Barry, is not at all what I expected. I was headed off to an appointment and I didn’t have anything to read, so I asked a colleague of mine in the English department for something, and he handed this to me. It looked like a graphic novel, and of course I know Barry’s name and her comics. I told him I’d give it back to him the next day. “Take your time,” he said.

It took me almost two weeks to finish reading this brief, wonderful book. It’s a series of hand-written, hand-drawn syllabi and the associated assignments for courses and workshops Lynda Barry has taught, with names like “The Unthinkable Mind” and “What it Is” and “Write What You See.” The classes ponder the connection between neurology and image and words, and ask questions like What is an image? How is an image transmitted from one person to another? What kind of drawing did we do before we “learned how to draw”? What if it turns out that the very thing you use to make visual art can also be used to make good writing? Where does imagination reside? If the thing we syllabus2call “the arts” has a biological function, what is it?

The book looks like a composition book. Every page is colored, written over, pasted onto, cram-jammed with detailed writing and doodles and work from her students. She has pages of instructions for classwork or homework, pages of ideas she’s nibbling on and wants to present in class, pages of words for a “word bag” that will spark student notions for short stories or drawings, ways to be present and mindful, ways to get out of the flurry of self-judgment so you can tap into creativity. It’s full of quotations, poems and things to memorize. Every page feels personal, as if she’s talking to you, giving you tips from one artist to another — and believe me, I’ve never identified as an artist.

The other piece is that the entire book radiates with caring. Lynda Barry cares about her students. She is riveted by their drawings, including those we would call “bad art.” She thinks about them every day. She wants them to engage, to spend time on the work, to understand how important art is, to draw even if they think they can’t draw. It’s their selves she wants on the page, and she finds it all beautiful.

syllabus3I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed this. Even at the end of the semester, when I’m tired and a little jaded, I wanted to think about these questions I’ve never really considered. It made me want to try some of the exercises myself, and maybe try a few new things in classes of my own (which are not art or creative writing classes at all.) This is a marvelous, funny, interesting book about creation. Maybe you need it the way I did.

Posted in Graphic Novels / Comics, Nonfiction | 4 Comments

Charlotte Sometimes

charlotte sometimesThere are certain kinds of kids’ books I love. I don’t necessarily seek them out, but I love them nearly every time I read them. Time travel books, boarding school books, ballet books, books about (sometimes orphan) siblings, books about kids who read books. Charlotte Sometimes, by Penelope Farmer, one is three out of five, and I was necessarily bound to adore it.

In 1958, Charlotte Makepeace goes to her first year at boarding school. Everything is strange, of course: the other girls, the customs, the bells, the sounds of airplanes flying overhead from the nearby runway. But at least she is there first, and gets to choose the best bed: an old-fashioned sort of bed on wheels, by the window.

The next morning, however, Charlotte wakes up in the same bed, but another time: 1918, when the country is at war. At first, she hardly knows anything is different, except that the other girls keep calling her Clare instead of Charlotte, because one boarding-school atmosphere is quite like another. That night, she goes to sleep in her bed on wheels, and wakes up in 1958 again, as Charlotte. Was it all a dream? She’s missed an entire day in her time. Who was here in her place? Was it Clare, the 1918 girl?

The alternating nights and days go on, and life becomes quite difficult to manage. Charlotte has to keep up with lessons in both times. In one era, she’s very good at piano, and in the other, she’s hardly begun lessons. In one era, she cements a best-friendship, then appears to ignore the girl the next day. Not to mention that in 1918, she has a sister, Emily, who has cottoned on to the whole problem. Inevitably, Charlotte gets stuck in 1918 and must figure out how to get home.

But the real problem, as the title of the book announces, is her identity. Who is Charlotte Makepeace? Is she only Charlotte when she is in 1958, or is she always Charlotte? Is she so much like Clare that she can be mistaken for her, even by her sister? If she stays in 1918, will she become Clare? What do time and culture and environment mean for identity, and what is nature? Can Charlotte change the people around her if she isn’t Clare?

This was a terrific book. Penelope Farmer gives us Charlotte’s confusion, the disequilibrium in living between two worlds, and asks us how we would determine our own lives in such a world. Children go along to get along — how can they do otherwise? — in a system of punishments and demerits and strict rules. How can they determine their own desires and loves and relationships? In 1918, in a world at war, courage and freedom have different meanings for a girl trying to find her way back home.

I understand that Charlotte Sometimes is the third in a trilogy, the first two of which have to do with children learning to fly (another category of kids’ books I love.) It seems that these might be books to pursue, since I liked this one so well.


Posted in Children's / YA Lit, Fiction, Historical Fiction, Speculative Fiction | 6 Comments


The exciting thing about a person like Saint Hilda of Whitby is that we know so little about her, so there’s lot of room for a historical fiction writer to simply make stuff up, which is exactly what Nicola Griffith admits that she’s done in this novel set in the seventh century at the court of Edwin of Northumbria.

The novel focuses on Hild’s early years, about which almost nothing is known. She becomes part of her uncle Edwin’s court when her father is poisoned. Early on and despite being quite young and a girl, she establishes herself as the “light of the world,” a wise seer and important adviser. As she grows to adulthood, she learns to use her wisdom to keep herself and those around her safe, to build a household, and to achieve a place of power. By the end, she’s gained the one thing she most dreamed of, but refused to acknowledge because it was impossible, forbidden, the cost too high. And we’re left wondering what will happen next.

Much like the novels of Dorothy Dunnett, especially King Hereafter, this novel does not do much to orient readers to the world. There’s a family tree and a map, there are a lot of people with similar names (Osric, Oswine, Osfrith, and Onnen, AEthelric, AEthelburh, AEthelfrith, and AEthelric), and lots of places I’m not familiar with. It took me a while to get a handle on which characters I needed to remember and which ones I’d have to just let go for this first reading. But once I had a sense of Hild, her childhood companion Cian, her sworn best friend Begu, the enslaved Gwladus, and a few others, I started to sink into the book a little better. It was, however, a slow read, as I had to go back and reread bits to grasp what was happening.

The novel depicts a land in transition. There are many kings, and alliances between them come and go, with Edwin remaining overking of the Anglisc. The Christians are gaining power, and their God will not be worshiped alongside Woden. And, with their education and ability to write, their power seems useful. When Edwin’s court, including Hild, is baptized, it is as much about politics as about spirituality. Only a few characters seem to treat their religion as a matter of spiritual and moral practice, and it doesn’t necessarily go well for them.

One of the more interesting, and sometimes disturbing, threads throughout the book involves the relationships between the characters. Hild’s world is violent, and the threat of death is always real. When people go away and when women go into labor and when the winter comes, survival is not assumed. When Hild’s sister marries and goes away, Hild never stops fretting over her. Whenever Cian goes out to a battle, Hild worries. When Hild herself is out to protect the kingdom, she’s willing to kill if necessary to she believes it will protect her people.

And somehow this constant threat of death makes the relationships seem both more precious and more disposable. It starts with Hild’s mother, who sees her two daughters as avenues to power and security and trains them as such. If she loves them, that doesn’t enter into it. It may be oversimplifying to say that this is the reason Hild grows up insecure about others’ affections and the permanence of every relationship, but her relationship with her mother is never easy and comfort in love is always elusive for Hild.

Another uneasy relationship is between Hild and one of her most loyal companions, her enslaved bodywoman Gwladus, who always knows what her master needs, whether its food or sex or quiet, and she provides it without Hild ever having to ask. She’s essential to Hild’s happiness, yet she’s not there of her own free will, yet she’s better off and happier with Hild than she might be elsewhere. Still, it’s an uneasy relationship, and the book acknowledges that. (The book is refreshingly matter of fact about Hild’s sexuality. She’s attracted to women and to men, and that’s just how it is. Attraction is just a thing that happens, acting on it is where the risk may be.)

And then there’s Cian, her best friend and possible half-brother, the boy who taught her to fight with a staff and the man whose rise at court she supported. She’s constantly worried about him and occupied with how she could protect him. Her desire to protect him, even if it means keeping important secrets from him, is what leads to the book’s extremely ambiguous ending, one that is one part happy ever after and one part serious dread. It’s an ending that left me with a knot in my stomach and a desire for the next book in Griffith’s planned trilogy to come out right now.

Posted in Fiction, Historical Fiction | 10 Comments

Parable of the Talents

parable of the talentsI was so engrossed in the earlier book of this pair by Octavia Butler, Parable of the Sower, that I waited only a couple of months to get the sequel. I’m happy to say that Parable of the Talents is one of the best dystopias I’ve ever read: compelling, frightening, complex, and above all, horribly likely. As I continue this review, please remember that this book was published in 1998 — before Guantanamo, before the War on Terror, and twenty years before our current administration.

This book is formatted a little differently than the last. It is presented as a collection of Lauren Oya Olamina’s diary entries as collected and annotated by her daughter, years after they were written. In this way, we have not only Lauren’s voice, with which I was so caught up in the last book, but also some historical perspective and some critical distance. Lauren’s daughter wasn’t brought up in Earthseed, the religion where the only god is change, and she’s skeptical not only about her mother’s religion but about her motives. What happened to make all this come about?

The diary entries pick up more or less where the last book left off. Lauren and her group of marginalized drifters have created a home for themselves — Acorn. They’ve planted crops, built homes, acquired an armored truck so that they can go into a nearby village and sell their produce, and begun to heal. Despite the fact that they are always on alert, they are as safe and happy as anyone can be in a country rife with chaos.

But then President Donner is elected, of the Christian America party. (Slogan — I absolutely kid you not at all — “Make America Great Again.”) His extreme right-wing Christian party conflates patriotism and a certain brand of Christian fundamentalism, promising to bring peace and prosperity back to the nation. Suddenly, anyone who doesn’t conform is a danger and in need of “reeducation.” And that includes Acorn, with their odd beliefs about Earthseed. A rogue group of the president’s supporters, who call themselves Donner’s Crusaders, invade Acorn and take Lauren and her friends captive, enslaving them with high-tech shock collars. And indeed, that is only the beginning.

To me, this book was so plausible that it was as frightening as a horror novel. We already know that Americans will accept detention without trial, rape, torture, and removal of children from their parents, as long as it’s happening to people we think are bad or wrong, and as long as it’s not happening right in front of our faces. We already know that people will make themselves willfully blind to giant problems for a whole demographic (or sometimes an entire nation) if they can convince themselves there is benefit — or even hope of benefit — for their own family or situation. In Parable of the Talents, enslavement and torture happens not on the basis of race (though race is always an issue in a country headed by a white fundamentalist), but on the basis of conformity to certain patriotic-religious beliefs. Could that happen? Sure it could. Pay attention.

One of the things I love about Butler’s writing is that her nuance with characters keeps the themes from being heavy-handed. Lauren’s daughter, her brother, and her husband all represent different points of view on religion — Christian and Earthseed — and make it complex and interesting. And the way Butler explores the realities of enslavement from the point of view of the enslaved is — as I said — a horror, and it has long-lasting consequences. It reminds me of the flat reason Jesus gives for speaking in parables at the end of the parable of the sower in the Bible — one of the least reassuring things he ever says: Whoever has, will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them.

I’ve now read five books by Octavia Butler, and they have all been wonderful. This might be my favorite of them all (oh, but Fledgling!) If you’ve never read Butler, make space for her in your library bag, like yesterday.

Posted in Fiction, Speculative Fiction | 9 Comments

A God in Ruins

god in ruinsLike Teresa, I am a big fan of Kate Atkinson’s work. In 2016, I read Life After Life, and just fell into it: the fugue of Ursula’s repeated lives, returning and returning as she went along the same pathway with certain differences each time, captivated me. When I discovered that there was a companion novel, about Ursula’s brother Teddy, I put it on my list straightaway.

This book, like Life After Life, is nonlinear. Each part moves backward and forward to some new place in Teddy’s life. He has a happy, peaceful childhood (this reflects only some of Ursula’s experiences in the other book, of course — he can only be in one of her paths); an impossibly heightened and intensified wartime fighting in the air; a quiet marriage with a difficult daughter, Violet; beloved grandchildren (Sunny and Bertie) he gradually gets to know. We get Violet’s point of view at times, too, and the children’s, but the narrative loops back most often to the inside of Teddy’s head.

This is very much a book about silences. Even as a child, Teddy can’t, or isn’t permitted to, articulate the things he thinks about or desires. Later, during the war, the most emotionally important things go unsaid, sometimes as a matter of superstition — don’t say it or you’ll be the next to go — and sometimes as a matter of masculine norms. After the war, Teddy considers his experience — a memory that is unique, but aligns with the experience of an entire country — to be private. He doesn’t share it with his wife, and he doesn’t ask her about her experience at Bletchley. The book loops back and back to his wartime experiences, to the terror and the camaraderie and the deep grief and the surreal nature of the sudden death that can occur, but Teddy never speaks of it. Later, it seems to surprise him that his wife keeps the news of her devastating illness from him. Why would it? He’s a good, kind man, but theirs is not a marriage in which such things can be said aloud.

I liked a lot of pieces of this book. The wartime parts are extremely vivid, and I appreciated seeing Teddy’s family from his point of view. I also liked Sunny and Bertie (although there’s a chapter about Bertie that was nearly unreadably painful), and I was interested in the way their grandfather was reliable and comforting in a way that their mother couldn’t be. How did he learn to communicate with his grandchildren without ever really saying anything? However, the novel as a whole didn’t quite come together for me. Violet was too one-dimensional for my liking (despite the excuse we finally got for her behavior) — we kept getting new, outrageous examples of her mistreatment of Teddy, and it was too much, too Disney-villain, to be believable. It kept taking me out of the story in order to shake my head.

And then there was the ending. I really like it when authors play with form, when they juggle time or do something experimental with what a novel is supposed to be. However, when they have me invest in characters and events over hundreds of pages and then say “Ha ha, just kidding,” it’s not playing with form and it’s not making me think about anything. It’s just yanking a rug, and despite the meta-hints about aunts who write stories, it’s not particularly clever.

The ending did make me remember the beginning of Life After LifeNo breath. A drowning child, a bird dropped from the sky. The repeated image of the falling bird reminds me, of course, of Teddy, falling out of the sky as he continues to fly long after he should have stopped. In both of these books, the issue is not characters who affect the world around them, but a world — a war — that creates and shapes the characters living their lives, over and over, misunderstood and alone or happy and triumphant or sometimes, improbably, both at the same time. How do people choose? How do they live, in often-dire circumstances? How do they make connections, or fail to?

I didn’t enjoy A God in Ruins as much as I liked Life After Life, but Kate Atkinson is always worth reading. She is just so weirdly human — all of her books are, from Behind the Scenes at the Museum to her chaos-theory Jackson Brodie detective stories. I’ll always read what she writes, and I was glad about this one, too.

Posted in Fiction | 8 Comments

Gabi: A Girl in Pieces

Less than a month before school starts again. Ugh. It’s not like I don’t want to go back to school (because I do), but I also want to lie around and do nothing for a little bit longer. Eat some tacos. Eat a few more Rocky Road ice cream cones from Rite-Aid so I have an excuse to talk to the really cool guy there who has a full sleeve but has to cover it up because apparently Rite-Aid keeps it classy. Not like he’s asked me for my number but, hey, at least I can say he’s given me something sweet.

Gabi Hernandez, the main character in this novel by Isabel Quintero, is starting her senior year in high school. It proves to be an eventful year, and she chronicles it all in her diary, which forms the novel. School hasn’t even started when her best friend, Cindy, discovers that she’s pregnant. Her other best friend, Sebastian, comes out to his family and is kicked out. Her father is addicted to meth. And Gabi gets her first boyfriend … and her second … . And she discovers, through this diary and her poetry class, that she has a gift for telling true, honest stories about her life.

Gabi’s voice, both self-deprecating and effervescent with confidence, is a large part of what makes this book fun to read. She deals with some difficult situations, and she’s sometimes in terrible pain, but her diary is a place where she works through it and finds a way to move forward.

Like many teens, Gabi is figuring out who she is, but every story of self-discovery is a little bit different. For Gabi, she has to navigate her Mexican-American heritage and everything she loves about it, her feelings about her fair skin making her look too white, and the fact that her dreams may eventually take her away from her family. She hears her mother’s messages about being a “good girl,” but she chooses to define that in her own way.

A lot of her thoughts focus on the standards society places on women. There’s the fact that her mother is more focused on her sexual purity than on her younger brother’s. And then there’s her weight, which her mother frets about to the point that Gabi has taken to stashing snacks in her room so she doesn’t get any grief. In both cases, Gabi figures out how to live a life that pleases her without stressing out her mother too much.

A lot of the book is about figuring out how to balance different expectations, and those include Gabi’s expectations for herself. It’s a joy to spend time with her as she works these questions out.

Posted in Children's / YA Lit, Fiction | 4 Comments

Just Mercy

just mercyI read Just Mercy with my book group, but I’ve been wanting to read it for quite a while. This is Bryan Stevenson’s memoir about how he founded the Equal Justice Initiative, which struggles against racial injustice in the criminal justice system, and especially in the application of the death penalty. You might have heard about EJI in the news lately, with the opening of the Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, which memorializes the history of racial terror lynchings in the United States.

You’d have to be deliberately closing your eyes and ears not to know that our justice system has severe problems. The predominance of racial minorities in prison exposes racial bias so deep that it’s hard to know where to begin to reform it. DNA evidence exposes false convictions on a weekly basis. Sentencing guidelines from the war on drugs create an entire class of the poor, homeless, and disenfranchised. Where could one activist lawyer begin?

The narrative arc of Just Mercy is Stevenson’s work with one client, Walter McMillian, who was convicted — and, as Stevenson shows us, falsely convicted — of killing a white woman. At his sentencing, the judge, Robert E. Lee Key, went out of his way to convert his sentence from life in prison to the death penalty. In alternate chapters, Stevenson shows the long, slow process of appeal and investigation that gets McMillian off death row and makes him a free man. This process, while frequently frustrating, exhausting, and tense, is the good news.

In between those chapters, however, the news is not… so great. Stevenson works with the mentally ill, the disabled, the desperately poor, women who have been raped in prison and have babies there, inmates who are children themselves. The courts, including the US Supreme Court, consistently rule against these people, stripping them of even the most basic rights to counsel, to have their voices heard, to protection from their abusers, to being tried as children or to separate housing from adults. Reading about this kind of brutality, made far worse by open racism baked into institutions and overt in individuals, is painful, difficult, and necessary.

There isn’t much that’s personal about this memoir — Stevenson spends more time talking about his principles than his friends or his childhood or his tastes. But one reason that this memoir works is that Stevenson deeply believes that change is possible, even if it is only one human being at a time. He speaks about his own reasons for doing what he does: not because he thinks he can change the world, or even because he feels he has no choice, but because his brokenness — the ways he has been hurt, and hurt others — touches the brokenness in his clients, and makes wholeness in God’s mercy. And it is just mercy that makes any change at all possible, anywhere.

The power of this book is that it is about injustice, poverty, race, and human beings trapped and set free — Stevenson, his clients, and eventually you and me. I was so grateful to read it.


Posted in Memoir, Nonfiction | 5 Comments